THE BELL WEEKLY: Russia gripped by controversial street crime TV series

The Bell

Hello. This week we look at how a hit crime TV show has caught Russia by storm. We also cover growing concerns over the disappearance of Alexei Navalny and analyze why rising egg prices have authorities scrambling for a response.

How a TV show about street gangs captured Russians and put officials on edge

It’s rare to see a contemporary Russian film or TV drama make the leap to becoming a real cultural phenomenon, one featured in the wider media discourse or discussed on social networks every day. But right now an eight-part series about teenage street gangs in the late Soviet era is doing just that. Zhora Kryzhovnikov’s “Slovo Patsana” (The Boy’s Word) is so popular in Russia that it is getting even more viewers than Korean Netflix sensation “Squid Game” did. Despite its huge success, Slovo Patsana is not universally popular. There have been calls to ban it due to its romantic take on criminal gangs, and in Ukraine it has already been banned under rules against Russian propaganda.

Battle for the streets

  • The show is set in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, an oil-rich, predominantly Muslim region. The plot follows the city’s teenage gangs in the late 80s, with much based on the documentary book of the same name by journalist Robert Garayev, who investigated a late Soviet-era crime wave that hit the city, known as the “Kazan Phenomenon.”
  • Although street crime in Soviet cities wasn’t unusual in the second half of the 20th century, it hit unprecedented levels in Tatarstan. By the 80s, Kazan had been divvied up between dozens of street gangs, whose members included ex-convicts and were bound by a rigid hierarchy. Initially, they fought for control of the streets in a series of mass brawls before escalating to more serious crimes, including battering rivals to death with chains. “By the 1990s, the guys who were ‘putting it about’ [fighting in gangs — The Bell] and fighting for control of the streets grew up and reached new levels of criminality. The most prominent of them got life sentences,” wrote regional publication Business Online.
  • One of the driving forces behind the phenomenon might have been the mass amnesty that followed the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, in which more than a million people were suddenly released from jail. Another likely factor was the mass migration of people from the countryside to the cities.
  • “Growing up at this time was hard and scary,” one Kazan resident who grew up in the city in the 1980s and 90s told the BBC. “My childhood memory is of permanent, serious fear.” Crossing one territory to another was dangerous, they said, with the constant risk of being mugged or assaulted. To avoid being attacked, you would have to explain where you came from and who your local gang leader was.
  • Slang from the show — known as “Patsan” — is now becoming wildly popular among viewers. Probably the most widespread term that has come into use is the word “chushpan,” a disparaging name for someone who has no gang allegiance.

To ban or not to ban

  • Some Russian officials see the show as a celebration of violence and banditry and have called for it to be banned. Tatarstan ombudsman Irina Volinets claimed Slovo Patsana “harms the mental and moral health of young people.” Vladimir Mezentsev, a public figure from the Sverdlovsk region said the show was a form of “sabotage against the Russian people.”
  • Tatarstan leader Rustam Minnikhanov has also criticized the show, albeit in gentler terms. “Films like this do not correspond with the policies we are pursuing,” he said. 
  • Experts who spoke to the BBC said the series accurately portrays life in Kazan in the late 80s, but did not feel that the drama romanticized criminal gangs. Despite some pressure, it will not be banned in Russia, with some lawmakers having stood up for the show publicly. “We can’t ban films like this because censorship is prohibited by law in our country,” said parliamentarian Maria Butina. “And I will always stand up for the law.”
  • It’s possible that efforts to ban the series are doomed to fail because it was made with state funds — the Internet Development Institute, which is currently investing in “patriotic” content, provided financial support.
  • Slovo Patsana has already been banned in Ukraine. The National State Film Agency recognized the popularity of the series, but described it as a “propaganda product” which promotes “Russia’s totalitarian regime” and “the Russian Federation’s military aggression.”

Why the world should care:

The series is an excellent portrayal of a lost generation, Russian critics say. The “Kazan Phenomenon” has made “Slovo Patsana” into a cultural touchstone. In Russia, its ratings are already higher than many top imported shows like The Sopranos, The Office and Game of Thrones.

Dear readers,

The Bell is now listed as “a foreign agent” in Russia: our website is blocked, we can no longer raise money through advertising, and our business model is in ruins. Journalists in Russia face greater risks than ever before. Repressive new laws threaten up to 15 years in jail for objective reporting.

However, we are not about to give up. This newsletter is our newest project. It presents an in-depth analysis of the Russian economy, which has survived the first year of the war but is becoming ever more secretive. We will try and shed some light on what’s going on. Each edition will tackle a part of the big question: how long can the Russian economy endure under sanctions and when will the Kremlin run out of money for its war?

We don’t want to have to charge a fee for our newsletters. However, if The Bell is to continue its work, we need your support.

You can make a donation here. It will help our journalists continue investigating stories, breaking news and publishing newsletters.

Alexei Navalny has not been seen in court hearings for almost two weeks, triggering growing fears for the fate of Russia’s most prominent opposition leader. Navalny is currently serving a decades-long jail sentence on fraud and extremism charges rejected by him, his supporters and independent rights groups who have declared him a political prisoner. His supporters have been increasingly sounding the alarm over his whereabouts in recent days. In addition to his failure to appear at court hearings, they cannot locate him in the region where he is serving his time, or in the Moscow jail system, to where he might have been transferred pending an investigation into new charges.

  • Navalny was last seen on Dec. 5. The next day one of his lawyers spent seven hours outside his penal colony in the Vladimir region (260km from Moscow), but was not allowed inside the facility without a concrete reason. The opposition figure’s colleagues are trying to locate him and in a call with reporters, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said twice that he knew nothing of Navalny’s whereabouts.
  • On Dec. 15, it emerged that Navalny had “left” the Vladimir region, it was reported in court. His destination remains unknown and no further information has been given. 
  • Human rights activist Olga Romanova, who specializes in support for prisoners, said on Dec. 16 that she had information that Navalny may have been taken to the hospital at Vladimir Central (a prison for particularly dangerous prisoners in the Vladimir region) due to problems with his blood-sugar levels. However, Romanova added that she did not have full confirmation this was the case.
  • Navalny has already disappeared three times in the Russian prison system since he returned to the country in 2021 following treatment in Germany to recover from poisoning with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok. On each of those times, he was being transferred to a new facility. Getting information on prisoners’ whereabouts when they are being moved around Russia’s prisons and penal colonies is notoriously difficult, with the transfer process often taking weeks. Earlier this year, another opposition politician, Andrei Pivovarov, went missing for more than a month while being sent to a prison colony in Karelia. 

Why the world should care:

Following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Kremlin has effectively banned, outlawed and quashed the domestic opposition, with all major figures either in prison or having fled the country. Navalny, therefore, is not the same kind of opposition leader he was prior to his poisoning and imprisonment. Nevertheless, he is an important figure within Russian media and remains the most high-profile symbol of Russian opposition to the Kremlin both inside and outside of the country.

Officially, Navalny is due to be released in 2050 but few believe this will happen. A new case was opened against him just weeks ago, this time on charges of vandalism. Navalny himself has said he’ll remain behind bars as long as Putin is in power. Details of his current circumstances and the authorities’ plans for him remain unclear.

Authorities scramble to curb rising egg prices

The price of eggs has risen sharply recently, prompting Russian authorities to intervene to bring the market back under control. Prices started climbing back in the fall and in December shops throughout the country were left with empty shelves amid panic buying and soaring demand. After simmering for weeks, the problem reached boiling point in mid-December with President Vladimir Putin even apologizing for the high prices during his grand end-of-year press conference.

  • Average egg prices across the country have risen by 40% over the 12 months to Nov. 2023, according to official statistics. The biggest increase was recorded in occupied Crimea (+74%). In the Far East, 10 eggs cost the equivalent of $1.65, while a pack goes for an average of $2.31 in the central Urals region. Some regions (here, here) have even started selling eggs individually given the surge in prices, while in others, shops selling cheap eggs have seen huge lines form.
  • There are several reasons behind the surge in egg prices, said Andrei Sizov, a leading Russian expert in the agriculture market. The first factor is seasonal — eggs are always more expensive at this time of year as demand increases and supply from small producers declines (feed costs are higher and more electricity is required). Second, as a cheap source of protein, eggs are in greater demand due to rising prices for poultry. Other reasons include factory closures due to bird flu and the weak ruble, which means the cost of veterinary drugs costs more.
  • To halt the price surge, the Russian authorities canceled duties on imported eggs, which previously ran at 15%. Now, eggs from Turkey and Azerbaijan should become more readily available on the Russian market. 
  • Putin was even moved to apologize for high egg prices during his end-of-year press conference and Russia’s federal antimonopoly service immediately opened cases against four businesses suspected of working as an egg-price cartel. If found guilty they will face fines.

Why the world should care:

Ahead of the March 2024 presidential election, which Putin is expected to win easily, the authorities are again trying to control the prices of socially important products. Previously, the government intervened to halt rising prices for chicken and gasoline. This is now the third localized price crisis in a short space of time, and one that could spread to other markets and products at any moment.


Support The Bell!

The Bell's Newsletter

An inside look at the Russian economy and politics. Exclusively in your inbox every week.